With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next two weeks looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundance Film Festivals. Today, I’m taking a look at the 2018’s Searching.
Searching tells the story of David Kim (John Cho) and his daughter, Margot (Michelle La).
David thinks that he has a close relationship with his daughter but, in reality, they’ve been drifting apart ever since David’s wife died two years earlier. Now, Margot is away at college and David is alone at home. They still communicate, of course. They message each other on Facebook. They Skype. David sill sends Margot money for her piano lessons.
And yet, even if he can’t bring himself to fully admit it, David knows that they’re not as close as they once were. Their conversations are often awkward and he doesn’t really know much about the friends that Margot has made at college. Too often, he finds himself starting to ask her about what’s really going on in her life, just to then erase the message before sending. One night, when Margot tells David that she’s going to a friend’s house for a study group, he has no reason not to believe her. It’s not until Margot fails to return from studying that David is forced to confront how little he actually knows about his daughter’s life.
As a film, Searching is set almost entirely on smartphones and computer screens. Considering that the movie could have just as easily been called Unfriended 3: Searching, this is a surprisingly good and emotionally resonant film. We watch as David helplessly sends out messages to his daughters, messages that are destined to be unanswered. We watch as David looks at old pictures and videos of the family he once had, searching for some sort of answer hidden in the past. And, as we watch all of this, we come to realize that David is not just searching for his daughter’s whereabouts. Instead, in a world dominated by social media, he’s also searching for a human connection, for something more than just a tweet or a cryptic status update.
Of course, the film does occasionally threaten to take its format just a bit too far. Sometimes, you really do find yourself wishing that David would just get offline and go outside and look for his daughter. (Actually, he does do that but, because of the film’s narrative structure, we don’t really get to witness it.) By the time David is having nightly FaceTime sessions with the detective (Debra Messing) assigned to his daughter’s case, you can be excused for fearing that the film’s style is going to end up collapsing in on itself.
Fortunately, Searching is held together by the lead performance of John Cho. Whenever Searching threatens to veer into self-parody, Cho is there to bring it back on track. Before this film came out, I guess Cho was probably best known for appearing in the Star Trek movies. Searching made him the first Asian-American to headline a mainstream thriller in Hollywood and Cho gives such a sympathetic and compelling performance that you’re willing to excuse whatever flaws might be present in the film’s narrative. Because he’s played by John Cho, you want David to find his daughter. You want him to find that for which he’s searching.